Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rebecca Black vs Glee (or, the importance of being beta'd)

Okay, bear with me for a second. 
Watch as much of this  as you can without wanting to claw your eyeballs out or stab yourself in the ears. 

Okay, done? You gonna be okay? Good. Now watch this:

It's better right? Almost ... bearable, even? 
And why wouldn't it be? The Glee kids had a whole team behind them figuring out how to edit, tweak and rework the song into something more palatable, whereas I'm pretty sure the $5,000 Rebecca Black's folks paid the studio didn't cover much  'fixing' beyond a blanket auto-tune. Don't get me wrong, I'm not Rebecca-hater. I don't think it's fun to pick on a child because she stumbled upon fame via a present. She seems fine, she can even sing - it's the production, mixing and everything else about the song that sucks. And that's my point. If Glee's Friday doesn't make you want to set yourself on fire or rip your ears off to make it stop, it's not due to any fundamental differences. It's the same basic song, Glee's version is just much more polished, and well thought-out. You could say it's the 'final' draft compared to Ms Black's 'rough' one. 

And that's where beta readers come in. For those of you who don't know, betas are a writer's first round-readers - the family and friends you trust to look at the story you've spent the last few months or even years pouring your heart and soul into and give you their genuine, honest opinion on it. Anyone who's ever written anything (school essay, poem, three-part paranormal adventure series ...) knows how nerve-wrecking that can be. And if you're a writer writer - someone who does this for a living, or wants to some day -  it can be downright painful. What if they don't like it? What if they think it's rubbish? What if they thing you're rubbish? Oh GOD (*puts head between legs to prevent hyperventalation*) just let them love it!! 

'It's good, right? Right? RIGHT!?!"
But the thing is they mightn't love it, and even if they do there's probably still things they'll think you can fix. In fact, if you've chosen your betas well, there's probably lots they've noticed - and that's a good thing, because beta readers have one huge advantage when it comes to reading our stories. Distance. They don't love our characters like we do. They haven't spent months living out the story in their heads like we have, so they're not as blind to the things we overlook - like the hilarious scene that completely slows the plot, the gaping plot holes that made sense to us or the beautiful, flowery sentences that read like pretentious drivel. 

Our characters and stories matter to us, they mean something, they're real to us. And when our beta readers tell us they didn't quite feel the same way, it can be tempting to jam your hands over your ears, scream "LALALA" and disappear back into your little head world because that's the only place they understand you. But don't (also, don't punch your beta in the face - or anywhere else - defriend them on Facebook or hold a fake funeral in their honour because they're dead to you now). 

Also inappropriate - this.
Of course, it's all subjective - that's why it's important to have a few betas. If something's coming up again and again they probably have a point. If you get conflicting feedback, though, just try to think about what feels right for you. After all, not everyone's going to see your story the same way, so it's important to remember it IS yours. You know it best so if a suggest really doesn't sit right, don't do it. That said, even if the criticism they offer doesn't always make sense to you straight away, don't dismiss it offhand. Sometimes it takes stepping back from your story and characters and really thinking about the advice before it starts to make sense. Sometimes it takes swallowing your pride. And sometimes it takes making huge sacrifices. 

When one of my betas suggested  I get my story started faster by cutting a scene I considered vital (and brilliant, naturally!) I'll be honest, I thought he was nuts. I loved that scene, everyone else loved that scene, and I had NO idea how else to set up the relationship between my two main characters. However, two months and a meeting with my agent later (when she suggested more action) I realised Dad was right. The scene was great by itself, but it was holding up the story. And the solution was not only to rip out it out but also cut the intro I loved - the one I'd worked so hard on - and replace it with something completely different. It hurt. It made me want to cry a little but you know what? It works! I still miss my intro, but I have to admit no-one else would and at the end of the day that's what matters. 

Constructive criticism can feel like a slap in the face (or worse, a slap in your characters' faces) and it can knock your confidence for ten if you let it. But, remember, much as we dream of our readers coming back and telling us 'it's perfect, don't change a word!' those that do are only stroking our egos long enough for us to get them bruised by agents or publishers. Because nobody's perfect. No matter how good you are, there's always room to improve. And, while it's great to hear what people love about our stories (and important, you've gotta know what you're doing right so you don't start doing it wrong) it's the cuts and tweaks and sometimes painful chapter surgery you really need to hear about. And if you can suck it up and actually listen to their advice, your betas' outsiders perspectives can help to take your masterpiece from not-quite-there to good, from good to great and from great to WOWZERS!! 

And sometimes, you're both right.


  1. Yup. Two of the changes I made to my book in the beta stages actually wound up significantly changing how my protagonist came across as a person. They were for the better, but the problem was I couldn't see the problems in how I was portraying him because I was too close to it.

  2. That's so easy to do! I was explaining to a (non-writer)friend of mine who's beta-ing for her cousin that sometimes there's just a disconnect between what happens in our heads and the way we explain it on the page. We know our characters and story so well that sometime we assume EVERYONE will understand their motivations like we do. That's why we need out beta's to be honest with their feedback!